Trade shows are like birthdays, in that they’re a yearly marker of how far an industry has come, and even a celebration of sorts if things are going well. I’m looking at this year’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market that way.
Over a plate of hotel “continental” breakfast food (note to self, bulk up to avoid buying pricey convention hall alien sandos, perhaps even stick muffin in pocket), my fingers fly to the keyboard as my mind goes back…
Outdoor Retailer is only 18 years old. Before that, if you wanted a snowsports trade show you had one choice, then known as Ski Industries of America (SIA).
The winter was 1987/88. Michael Kennedy, then publisher of Climbing Magazine, hired me to do some backcountry skiing gear reviews. Part of the job was to head for SIA and check the menu.
Unlike the veritable bacon cornucopia in our hotel this morning, the SIA gear offerings were a famine. Paul Ramer was there of course, with his binding and skis. A few nordic ski companies had “mountaineering” skis that were basically re-labeled track skis they’d slapped a steel edge on. Backpacks for backcountry skiing? Forget it. I don’t recall one pack maker that had any ski specific features (perhaps Life Link offered a pack, if so apologies).
This was before plastic telemark boots; if you telemarked you were a god who arced skis using the skiing equivalent of sandals — of which you could find many boring offerings. On down the line it was the same story, backcountry skiing specific gear just barely existed.
Compare that to what we’ll be checking out over the next few days. Seemingly endless choices in plastic AT and tele boots, including the holy grail of AT boots: cloned alpine shoes with a walk mode. Dozens and dozens of backcountry specific ski models — not to mention the fact that just about any modern freeride ski makes a good backcountry plank.
Clothing? I’d have to clone myself and family three times over to check out every piece of clothing you could use for ski alpinism. More, we’ll even have a hard time looking at everything ski specific.
Backpacks? That’s a bit easier, but still huge. Twenty years ago, no ski packs to speak of. Today, we’ve got ski specific packs with Avalungs built in, excellent ski carrying features, hydration systems, shovel/probe pockets, choices in weight and style. You name it, you can probably find it.
Beacons, shovels, probes, eyewear, hats, gloves. Incredible. In just two decades we’ve gone from cult to mainstream. Sure, you can complain about the crowds at some trailheads, and you’re not one of the few anymore. But you can’t complain about how good we have it in terms of gear choice, quality and durability.
Sort of like the goods in the bacon warmer about forty feet from here, the supply of backcountry gear now seems to go forever. Speaking of which… can I celebrate this birthday with a bacon sandwich? More later.